KABUL, (Reuters) – A suicide bomber killed two people outside a major NATO military base in southern Afghanistan on Monday, officials said, as U.S. Marines pushed on with a major new offensive and sporadic violence flared across the country.
The bomber drove a car packed with explosives towards a line of truck drivers waiting to supply foreign troops at the Kandahar air field, a major base for international troops in a province long considered the heartland of the Taliban insurgency.
Kandahar is also adjacent to Helmand province, where thousands of Marines launched a big new assault last week to wrest the initiative away from the Taliban in a province which also supplies most of the opium poppy that funds the insurgency.
The Marines are the biggest wave of 17,000 new combat troops ordered into Afghanistan by U.S. President Barack Obama by the end of the year as part of his new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and its allies and stabilise Afghanistan.
The Helmand offensive, Operation Strike of the Sword, was launched with insurgency-related violence at its highest since the Taliban’s austere Islamist government was ousted in 2001 for failing to hand over al Qaeda leaders wanted over the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
While no major battles have been reported in Helmand since the offensive began last Thursday, attacks there and elsewhere have killed civilians as well as Afghan and foreign soldiers.
In Kandahar, the Taliban’s base through the early 1990s where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden also lived for a time, the suicide bomber drove his car up to a line of supply trucks near the sprawling NATO base at Kandahar Air Field. “It was a suicide car attack which killed two truck drivers and wounded 10 more of them, along with two (Afghan) army soldiers,” said General Sher Mohammad Zazai in Kandahar told reporters in Kandahar.
Another army officer, who asked not to be identified, said four Afghan soldiers were also killed but there was no independent confirmation. No foreign troops were killed or injured, Shah said.
Reuters pictures showed the front of one truck badly twisted and pock-marked by shrapnel, its windshield blown out. Police swept charred debris off the road. A Taliban spokesman told Reuters in Pakistan by telephone from an undisclosed location that the suicide bomber killed 12 NATO troops and four Afghan soldiers.
Suicide attacks and roadside bomb blasts are the most common weapons used by the Taliban in their campaign to drive out almost 90,000 U.S. and NATO-led troops in Afghanistan and to destabilise President Hamid Karzai’s Western-backed government.
Washington is pouring in extra troops in part to ensure security for Aug. 20 presidential elections, the second in Afghanistan’s short history as a democracy.
On Saturday, two U.S. soldiers were killed in a complex attack on a combat outpost in southeastern Paktika province.
The attack began with small-arms and rocket and mortar fire, included a suicide truck bomb and ended with air strikes that killed as many as 30 insurgents, military and provincial officials said.
Three British soldiers were also killed in roadside bomb blasts and a rocket grenade attack at the weekend in Helmand.
All three died in operations near Gereshk, Helmand’s main industrial city in the Helmand River valley where U.S. Marines launched their new offensive. Their deaths took to 174 the number of British troops killed since Britain joined the U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban.
One of the main objectives of the new Marines offensive is not just to take ground from the Taliban but to also hold it, something overstretched British-led NATO troops in Helmand have so far been unable to do. There was also a spate of kidnappings at the weekend, another tactic commonly used by Taliban insurgents as well as criminal gangs seeking ransom payments.
An official with a United Nations-sponsored demining agency said on Monday that 16 of its personnel kidnapped in eastern Paktia province on Saturday had been freed unharmed.
Sherin Agha Ahmad Shah, head of the Mine Detection and Dog Centre in Paktia, said tribal chiefs made contact with the kidnappers and were able to secure their release late on Sunday. He described the kidnappers as thieves and said no ransom had been paid. The Interior Ministry said in a statement police were also involved in securing their release. There was no word on the fate of two Afghans working for Dutch aid agency HealthNet TPO who the Afghan Health Ministry said were abducted in neighbouring Khost province on Saturday.